“Mean” Gene Okerlund carved a unique career for himself as the man who has interviewed the biggest stars in the world of wrestling for over five decades.

Gene Okerlund has had prossibly one of the most unusual careers in pop culture history.  Instantly recognizable to those who watched wrestling in its heydays of the 1980’s, the small statured balding man was thrown into the room to interview the towering titans of the ring.  As a result, there isn’t anyone who Gene Okerlund didn’t work with. With his warm yet authoritative voice, and through much bewilderment, Gene was part commentator, part ring master and part straight man to massive personalities and egos, as week after week he listened to the stars of the wrestling world rant, rave, threaten and scream about what they would do to their opponents.  Well, somebody had to do it, and Gene has made a career in this strange world for over five decades. As a result, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, and was given a lifetime contract, without ever having a chair broken over his head or being thrown down on the matt.

Starting in radio in Minnesota, Gene began his career as an on-air wrestling personality when he replaced Marty O’Neil in the AWA (American Wrestling Association) in 1974.  Featuring the biggest wrestling stars of the era, Gene Okerlund got his chops talking with the wrestlers, and gained a reputation for his good natured personality, his sense of humor and his ability to maintain a sense of order in what was often a maddening environment.  It was during his time in the AWA that Gene Okerlund met wrestler, and later rival commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who gave Gene the nickname “Mean” Gene, playing on the irony of Gene’s reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the industry.  The name stuck, and fans would forever refer to him as Mean Gene.

Since 1974, “Mean” Gene Okerlund has worked with the biggest names in wrestling acting as commentator, straight man and ring leader.

In 1984 the AWA saw many of their top talent move over to the WWF, which was becoming a cultural phenomenon of the 1980’s and bringing the wrestling to a level of popularity never known before.  Gene Okerlund followed over to the WWF where he became one of the most recognizable personalities of the organization.  Appearing in multiple segments each week on the various programs across North America that ran WWF fights, Mean Gene would conduct the promotional interviews with the bravest heroes, the baddest heels and the biggest stars.  Mean Gene knew them all, and he saw it all.

An icon of my youth, I had the great pleasure to do a brief interview with Gene Okerlund during a public appearance.  However, with his handler giving me the eye and pointing at her watch, I only had minutes to ask the questions I wanted to ask.  But a professional to the end, Gene Okerlund fit a lot in a lot in the time we had.

CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS

THE NICEST MEANEST GUY IN ALL OF WRESTLING: A CONVERSATION WITH MEAN GENE OKERLUND

A young Gene Okerlund interviews Andre the Giant for the AWA. Starting his career in wrestling in 1974, Gene would work for the AWA, WWF and WCW before getting a lifetime contract with the WWE.

Sam Tweedle:  You probably had one of the most unique jobs in the wrestling industry by interviewing all of the different personalities.  How does one get a job like that?

Mean Gene Okerlund:  Well, you’ve got to be connected.  It wasn’t talent.  I knew the right people in the right places, and as you would know being a media guy, I had a lot of pictures.  They were compromising, and some people didn’t want those pictures seen.  As a result, I got the best job on the block.

Sam:  You had to deal with a lot of big personalities in your job.  Who were some of your favorite guys to work with?  The kind of guys that you liked to see when they came into the room to talk with you.

Dealing with a lot of different eccentric personalities, Gene Okerlund had to be ready for anything.

In 2006 Gene Okerlund was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame without ever getting body slammed or a chair broken over his head.

Mean Gene:  There are quite a few guys who could meet that description.  Guys that could really liven things up.  I like to go by era.  I started back in the ‘70’s with Mad Dog Vachon, Nick Bockwinkel, Andre the Giant…Bobby Heenan was even there.  But, some of the old time guys like Killer Kwalski and Bruno Sanmartino were really big names back in the 70’s.  But then it progressed to Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mick Foley, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Brett Hart, Sean Michaels.  Where do I stop?

Sam:  Where there ever any guys that actually sort of scared you?

Mean Gene:  Yes there were some guys that scared me.  One was a former British Empire Champion named Billy Robinson.  The “late” Billy Robinson.  He was a scary guy.  He was very explosive, very volatile.  Another guy was Tony Atlas.  He was one of only two guys who ever laid a hand on me.

Sam:  What do you feel the biggest moment in your career was?

Gene Okerlund was given his moniker “Mean” Gene by Jesse “the Body” Ventura as a play on his reputation for being the nicest guy in the wrestling industry.

Mean Gene:  Well, I’d have to document it by event, but suffice to say I had a great run and the good part about it is that I’m doing today what I’ve been doing my entire life.  I’m still working for the WWE, I’m hosting Vintage Collection and doing a lot of fan events.  I’m doing what I like to do, and I’m working with people that I like to be around.

Sam:  Have you ever thought about writing a book?

Mean Gene:  Well, I just finished my second book.  I’m going to write a third book one of these days.  I’ve got the manuscripts locked in the lower left hand drawer of the desk in my office.  As I look over the Gulf of Mexico from my window, I can be very creative.  Add a little Jack Daniels and I have a very good memory.  Mine would not just be another wrestling book.  It would be a tell-all.  It would blow the whistle on everybody!

Oh man.  Imagine the stories that Gene Okerlund isn’t telling us….yet!  Although he was friendly and very giving of his time, it was obvious that Gene was cautious not to ever say much about anything.  Perhaps it was because of the lack of time that we had to talk, or maybe it’s because he is saving it for the book.  But as he seems to make references to multiple times, he is obvious a man who knows a lot of secrets, which he hasn’t told yet.  I mean, what did he mean about the “compromising photos?”  Was he yanking my chain?  I really couldn’t tell.  Mean Gene is a man with a lot of possible secrets.

But Gene Okerlund lives up to his reputation.  He truly is one of the nicest guys in the wrestling industry.  There is a reason he was so successful at what he did.  Behind that moustache and that smile, Gene Okerlund has intelligence; personality and charisma which helped him do a job which could be one of the most difficult gigs in media.  Wrestling is a strange world, and it would take a lot of grit combined with a sense of humor to be so emerged in the industry like Gene Okerlund is.  But when it comes to grit, Gene Okerlund has tons of it, which is what has made him the most unusual wrestling legend of all time.

Charlotte Rae was the den mother of the children of the 1980’s.  Full of spunk and good advice, every kid wish they had someone as wise and understanding as Mrs. Edna Garret.  Introducing her beloved character in the first season of the groundbreaking all ages sit-com Diff’rent Strokes in 1978, Charlotte Rae made Mrs. Garrett a television icon when she was successfully spun off in her own sit-com, The Facts of Life, from 1979 until she departed the series in 1986.  Playing the house mother to a quartet of sassy private school girls, The Facts of Life was unique as it was one of the first television series to seriously, yet sensitively, focus on the issues surrounding modern young women growing up in the 1980’s.  With a wide range of topics including grades, sex, boys, divorce, pregnancy, disabilities and rape, Mrs. Garrett was the calming, but quirky, voice of comfort for not only the girls of Eastland, but to the viewers who watched her each week on television.

Studying theater at Northwestern University in the 1940’s, Charlotte Rae had a desire to become a serious stage actress.  However, through the influences of her friendships with future stars Paul Lynde and Cloris Leachman, she soon found success working as a comedic performance.  Relocating to New York after graduation, Charlotte found work in such stage productions as Pickwick, Romeo and Juliet and Lil’ Abner.  But when television hit New York like storm in the 1950’s, like most actors of the time Charlotte quickly found herself in front of the camera.

In 1961 Charlotte got her first series playing Al Lewis’ wife  Sylvia Schnauser in the classic cop spoof Car 54, Where are You?  Although the series would only last two seasons, it would be popular enough to make Charlotte Rae a favorite for writers and producers, which would create a direct line to eventually having the role of Edna Garrett created for her nearly twenty years later.

This winter Charlotte Rae, now 89 years old, released her new autobiography, The Facts of My Life, talking about her life on the stage and screen, as well as the personal trials that she in private.  Written alongside her son Larry Strauss, Charlotte talks about her life on screen and stage, but also about her battle with cancer, caring for her autistic son  Andy, and her heartbreak when she discovered that her husband, John Strauss, was gay in the 1970’s.

I had the great pleasure to talk with Charlotte Rae about her life, and some of the things that she talks about in her book.  Although she didn’t reveal everything, careful to leave something for the readers, the two of us had delightful and fast paced conversation about her memories as an actress working on the stage, television and movies.

 READ FULL INTERVIEW

Paul Petersen – child actor, TV icon, teen idol, pop star and social crusader.

Paul Petersen has been many things in his career – child star, teen idol and pop star.  However, his ongoing legacy in Hollywood goes far beyond these accomplishments.

Starting his professional career at age nine, Paul was one of the original kids hired to be a Mousekteer on The Mickey Mouse Club.  However, before the cameras even rolled, Paul was the first kid fired from the show when, legend has it, that he punched the casting director in the studio commissary.  A few acting roles followed, with the most noteworthy being a part alongside Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat in 1958.  However, Paul would become part of Americana later that year when he was cast in the role of Jeff Sloane on the classic family sit-com The Donna Reed Show.

Paul Petersen, Shelly Fabares, Donna Reed and Carl Betz as The Sloane Family on “The Donna Reed Show.”

In the role of ‘All American Boy’ Jeff, Paul quickly became one of the era’s top teen idols, appearing on magazine covers and becoming the teenage fantasy of girls all across America.  Paul even had a brief flirtation with music when he had minor pop successes in the early 1960’s with Lollipop and Roses, She Can’t Find Her Keys and My DadThe Donna Reed would be a televisions staple until 1966, but when the series went off the air, like most young actors, Paul found it harder and harder to find work.  The days of the family sitcom and the popularity of the ‘All American Boy’ were over, and Paul Petersen was finding that his acting career fading at an alarming

However, there was a much important work for Paul Petersen than just being a TV star.  Paul would use these experiences to do so much more.

Since 1990 Paul Petersen has been helping child actors, both current and from the past, as the head of A Minor Consideration.

In 1990, after the suicide of his friend and contemporary Rusty Hamer, Paul Petersen  put together A Minor Consideration, an organized support group for former child stars that are suffering from any sort of issue due to their unique experience of being in front of the camera.  From drug addiction to sexual, physical and emotional abuse, to exploitation and any other sort of injustice that children may face as the result of show business, be it In the past or the present, Paul Petersen has lead the charge to make sure that this unique subculture of people are taken care of.  An accomplished writer, for decades Paul has written extremely thoughtful and hard hitting essays about the harsh reality faced by child stars on A Minor Conisderation’s web-site.  He is a man who knows the laws, knows the history of children in entertainment, and takes a keen interest in making sure that the best interests of the child is put forth on movie and television sets.

Simply put, Paul Petersen is a true crusader.

I have been aware of Paul’s work for years, and have been an admirer of his writing and essays. Thus, it was a great thrill to be able to talk to Paul Petersen about the work he does, and how A Minor Consideration is preparing itself to ensure that its work will continue in the future.

 

READ FULL INTERVIEW 

REMEMBERS

YVONNE CRAIG

1937 – 2015

“I meet women today who tell me that they grew up viewing Batgirl as an important role model. If they choose to know me in that context, well, I’ll take it.” – Yvonne Craig

The perfect combination of sexiness, sophistication and spunk, Yvonne Craig became the “first crush” of generations of fanboys.

Yvonne Craig had a face that launched a thousand pop culture articles.

I remember that it was a rainy day when I woke up at noon on July 16th, 2004, and due to a day of back breaking labor the day before, I woke up to a body was broken and bruised and my fingers were so raw that the skin had been torn from them. I only had enough strength to pull myself from my bed to the couch.  Flipping on the television, I was delighted to find the 1965 AiP Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman vehicle Ski Party on City-TV.  Light and campy, it was exactly what the doctor ordered.  But it wasn’t Frankie and Dwayne dressed in drag that grabbed my attention.  It was their beautiful co-star, Yvonne Craig,  as lovely co-ed Barbara Norris that made my morning just a little bit less stormy. You see, Yvonne Craig has always been a favorite of mine. Since I was a young boy I had a yen for Yvonne Craig and a flood of nostalgia of rushing home from school to watch Yvonne dressed in her famous purple and yellow costume on Batman came over me.  Well it inspired me to do I something I had never done before, but would go on to change my entire destiny.

A sexy, if not slightly “over the top” publicity photo of Yvonne Craig for AiP’s 1965 co-ed comedy “Ski Party.” A mid afternoon screening of the film would launch what would eventually become PCA.

I had found myself in a position in my life where I was starting to discover that I had a talent for expressing myself in the written word and, with “blogs” being a new found craze, I had recently created one.  At that time my entries were nothing more than narcissistic rants about whatever struck me as interesting about my life on that day.  Well, on the morning of July 16th, 2004 the most interesting thing in the world to me was Yvonne Craig.  Moving from the couch to the computer, I wrote a love letter to Yvonne Craig and put it on my “blog.”

That letter would be the first pop culture article to be published on the internet, long before PCA was even an idea.  It was the article that spawned over a decade of pop culture adventures, reviews, celebrity interviews, press rooms and a professional career as an arts and entertainment writer.  In fact, the letter is still housed at PCA here.

Before ever dawning the famous purple and yellow bat-suit, Yvonne Craig was one of the most prolific young character actresses in Hollywood.

With those deep eyes, dark hair, turned up nose and impish smile, Yvonne Craig was the perfect combination of sexiness, sophistication and spunk.  She had a good girl quality about her, but she was the kind of good girl that could lead a boy to do anything she wanted.  She was like that bad seed preacher’s daughter that prayed every Sunday, but talked you into stealing candy for her from the five and dime after church.  But most of all, thanks to her roles in some of 1960’s televisions most iconic cult programs, she became the first crush of generations of fan boys everywhere.

Of course Yvonne Craig will always be closely connected to playing the dual role of Batgirl and Barbara Gordon in the third and final season of Batman.  But what doesn’t always get recognized was her direct inspiration in the creation of the character.  It’s really sort of the “chicken and the egg” argument.  Who came first?  Yvonne Craig or Batgirl?

In a rare example of television and comic publisher’s working together in unison, Yvonne Craig was hired in 1966 to play the newly created Batgirl in an attempt to boost sagging rating for the third season of “Batman.”

After starting off hot in 1966, by the fall of 1967 Batman was on its final legs.  Batmania was dying off, the joke was getting old and rating were dropping fast.  Devoting two nights a week to their schedule for the past two seasons, ABC decided to cut Batman back to one night a week.  However, the producers felt that maybe a new gimmick would bring the ratings back.  Maybe a little bit of sex appeal would put the BAM and POW back into Batman.  Maybe it was time for a “Batgirl.”

Now in the comic books there had been both a Bat-Girl – Bettie Kane who was the niece of the more established Kathy Kane (aka Batwoman) who had only appeared in the comic a total of three times.  However, Batwoman and Bat-Girl hadn’t been seen in the comics for years, and establishing obscure comic characters wasn’t what TV executive William Dozier had in mind for his show.  Instead, he approached DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz with a concept that Batgirl should be the daughter of Police Commissioner Gordon and nobody should know her true identity. The idea was pretty original, and it was agreed that Batgirl would be reborn as Barbara Gordon.   Schwartz and his team got to work on the idea, and Dozier and his team hired Yvonne Craig to play the character.

Batgirl made her first comic book appearance in “Detective Comics #359,” followed by Yvonne Craig’s screen debut as Batgirl a few weeks later. Batgirl was an intant hit, and has become one of the most imporant and recognized female comic book characters in history.

In a rare example of a studio and a comic company working together in unison on the same concept, Batgirl would made her debut in Detective Comics #359 and a few weeks later Yvonne made her first appearance in the famous purple Bat-suit on television.  Although Batgirl was a definitely high concept novelty in the comics, Yvonne brought Batgirl to life with her high kicks and coy charm, exposing the character to an audience far beyond comics and securing her in the public subconscious. Even if they hadn’t read a comic book in their life, everybody knew there was a Batgirl.  Never in the history of comics, then or since, had the wide-spread knowledge of a character existed in the public mind.   Batgirl was an instant hit with readers and viewers alike and would become one of the most important female comic book characters in history.  Although it might have been possible that Batgirl would have made her on legacy in comic books alone, it was Yvonne Craig’s performance that made the character an overnight success and an instant fan favorite.

Yvonne Craig in 1964 making time with Elvis Presley in “Kissin’ Cousins.” This would be the second film she made with Elvis having previously appeared in “It Happened At the World Fair” (1963.

But what seems to be forgotten by the modern audience is that Yvonne Craig was far more than just Batgirl.  The reason she got the role in the first place was the fact that by 1966 Yvonne Craig was one of the most prolific young character actresses in Hollywood.  Likeable, subtle and fun, Yvonne Craig was the girl who showed up in just about everything.  She was a semi-regular on Dobie Gillis, appeared in two Elvis films (It Happened at the World’s Fair and Kissin’ Cousins), starred in the Tommy Kirk sci-fi stinker Mars Needs Women, was featured as a Russian ballerina in In Like Flint with James Coburn and made appearances in dozens of TV series including Gidget, Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, Wagon Train, McHale’s Navy, My Favorite Martian, Ben Casey, The Man from UNCLE, The Big Valley and My Three Sons long before she became Batgirl.

In 1969 Yvonne Craig seduced fan boys everywhere in the role of Marta on the classic “Star Trek” episode “Whom God Destroys.” Painted green for the episode, her performance would become part of the pop culture lexicon.

And who could not forget her erotic performance as Marta the green skinned alien in the classic Star Trek episode Who God Destroys?  Seductive and insane, Yvonne Craig’s dance captivated millions of sci-fi fans and the role became a part of the cultural lexicon.  It was Yvonne Craig that made Captain Kirk’s “green skinned” woman a sexual fantasy of fan boys for generations.

So all of this was running through my head as I wrote a letter to Yvonne Craig about how, as a young boy, I fell in love with her watching Batgirl.  However, with a sudden moment of inspiration, I looked up Yvonne Craig’s web-site and shot a link to her contact e-mail.

Imagine my surprise when a day later I got the following message from Yvonne Grail:

“Dear Sam.  Thank you for the VERY flattering open letter.  It made me blush!  I would love to send you a copy of my book (for fun summer reading) if you’ll send me a snail mail address.  Enjoy what is left of summer. Best, Yvonne”

In 2000 Yvonne Craig released her memoirs, “From Ballet to the Batcave and Beyond.”

My heart burst with joy with this wonderful message.  Never before had my words found their way to the subject, and not to mention one that held a place in my heart.  The kindness of  her acknowledgement made me realize that I was not as far from my icons as I thought, and it had a huge impact on me continuing to write.

Well, I did send Yvonne my home address and a few weeks later I received an autograph copy of her autobiography From the Ballet to Batgirl and Beyond.  Inside was a personalized note that read “For Sam.  Enjoy!  Yvonne Craig.”  A fantastic read, the book captured the full extent of Yvonne’s illustrious career as she told very open and blunt about the people she loved (David McCallum, Bill Bixby, Elvis Presley) and the people she did not (Charles Bronson, William Shatner, Desi Arnaz).  A wonderful read, it was filled with stories of a working actress during one of television’s most exciting eras.  They were stories from a woman who was surrounded by the greatest pop culture legends of Hollywood and wasn’t afraid to talk openly about it.  The book was a wonderful gift from Batgirl to a boy who loved her.  The book still sits on the bookshelf in my office and is a cherished possession.

Yvonne Craig and I never met or spoke in person despite always being about one degree of separation from one another.  A few interview requests fell dormant, and a recent personal appearance was cancelled.  But there was one more article about Yvonne Craig left to write.  This morning I sat down and wrote my second article about Yvonne Craig.  This time it was her obituary.  Life is so bitter sometimes.

Since that rainy afternoon when I wrote my open letter to Yvonne Craig I have lived three lifetimes.  Everything has changed.  But when rereading my letter to Yvonne this morning, with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I realized that one thing that had never changed was how I felt about her.  Really, in all these years it pretty much still says exactly what I feel and, right now, it has more of an impact than ever before.  It strikes a well-aimed yellow booted high kick right to my heart.

As long as there is a Batgirl, a little bit of Yvonne Craig will always be alive in our hearts and our minds forever.  Holy bitter-sweet, Batman!

 

REMEMBERS

PATRICK MACNEE

1922 – 2015

“Mrs. Peel, we’re need.”  – Tag line to The Avengers.

“I like clubs and pubs and bowler hats.  I like whiskey and lime.” – Patrick Macnee on the 1964 novelty record “Let’s Keep it Friendly.”

“Now don’t you worry John, things will be okay.  Just pick up your umbrella and bowler and go on your eccentric way.” – “The Ballad of John and Emma” by failed 17 year old poet Sam Tweedle.

Already a throw back when he took on the role of John Steed in the classic spy series The Avengers, actor Patrick Macnee became a symbol of British mod culture with his trademark bowler hat and umbrella.

In his 1988 autobiography Blind in One Ear, British character actor Patrick Macnee told of a morning in 1982 when he received a panicked phone call from his daughter Jenny who had just received news of his death.  Apparently, reports had gone over the news wires that Macnee, most famous for his portrayal of super spy John Steed in the iconic 1960’s spy series The Avengers, had died of “natural causes” and reporters were calling his family for comment.  At a healthy age 60, Macnee was still alive and kicking and the press had it all wrong.  Instead it was British actor Patrick Magee, who had been in A Clockwork Orange and Chariots of Fire, who had died.  The name was close, but Macnee had a lot of living left to do.

Thirty three years later the news wires have reported that Patrick Macnee has died again.  This time there was no mistake.  They got it right.  At age 93 Patrick Macnee died quietly at his home in Rancho Mirage, CA.  The world is a little less classy without him.

During the 60′s over-saturated spy craze, Patrick Mcnee carved out his own unique niche with an eccentric old world charm, differentiating him from such contemporaries as James Bond, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuyakin and John Drake.

I can’t even begin to explain the influence that Patrick Macnee and his portrayal of John Steed had on me growing up as a teenager.  During the 90’s, while my pals ran home to play guitars with their garage bands after high school, I was running home to watch The Avengers on A&E.  While they tried to emulate Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, I was trying to emulate Patrick Macnee.  They dressed in plaid and doc martins and I wore jackets and hats.  They knew all the lyrics to Creep and No Rain, I knew all the lyrics to Kinky Boots and Let’s Keep It Friendly.  I even once attempted to buy a bowler hat but I sadly discovered that I looked more like Oliver Hardy than John Steed.  I decided to stick with the fedoras.

But there was little doubt that Patrick Macnee had a certain hold on me as a teenager, and I thought he was certified cool.  I mean, he was always an old guy.  Even when he made The Avengers in the mid 1960’s he was past his baby faced prime and already had a stodgy old world feel about him.  What the appeal of Patrick Macnee was, both in the 1960’s and through the decades, was the fact that he had a genuine eccentric appeal that was based entirely on charm and class.  With a wink in his eye, a bounce in his step and a sing song quality in his voice Patrick Macnee seemed to live life a little bit differently, and a little bit finer.  He was the embodiment of the Victorian dandy living in the world of the 60’s spy craze.  While Napoleon Solo used a gun, Steed used a fencing foil concealed in an umbrella.  While James Bond scored with the ladies with a blunt sexuality, Steed seduced them with subtle innuendos and whimsical ad-libs.   While John Drake fought hard with his fists, Steed seemed to be dancing a flamboyant waltz during a fight.  The Avengers were little bit camp and a little bit fetish, but it was all charm and class.

Patrick Macnee with actress Anneke Wills in the classic Avengers episode “Dressed to Kill.” According to Wills, when the cameras stopped rolling, Patrick Macnee continued to be John Steed. The man and the character were one and the same.

But where did the character of John Steed start, and where did it end?  Who was I trying to emulate – the actor or the character?  Well, according to one actress I spoke to, reality and fiction bled together between Macnee and Steed.  When I was 19 years old I went to a small science fiction convention (although, in reality, you could have barely even called it that) in the basement of a church in Toronto where they had flown in British actress Anneke Welles to talk about her time as obscure 1960’s Doctor Who companion Polly opposite William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton.  With most of her Doctor Who episodes missing, those in attendance were excited to know about her time on the cult sci-fi series.  However, I was enamored by her because she played the woman dressed as a pussycat that hung off of Patrick Macnee in the classic 1963 Avengers episode Dressed to Kill.  Clinging on to a photo of her and Patrick Macnee to get signed, I gushed when I asked her “What was Patrick Macnee really like?”  Anneke explained to me that Patrick Macnee and John Steed were virtually one and the same.  When the cameras stopped rolling, Macnee didn’t change.  She claimed that Macnee wasn’t even acting.  He was just playing the character as if it was himself.  That elegance, wit, charm and love for finery was an important part of his actual personality that the producers on The Avengers would even let him ad-lib as he went along.

In the roles of super spies John Steed and Emma Peel, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg became one of the most unique screen couples in the history of television. A natural chemistry and connection between the actors allowed the characters to grow organically to the point that the producers allowed the pair to ad-lib their own banter.

Which was an important element in the magical chemistry between him and Dame Diana Rigg when they were paired as John Steed and Emma Peel in 1965.  Most casual pop culture fans don’t realize that Rigg was actually the fourth of Macnee’s Avengers co-stars, but her popularity was so immense that she would eventually out shadow him as the icon of the series.  But despite her popularity, you couldn’t have a Mrs. Peel without a John Steed.  He set it up and she knocked it down, and he retorted with an offbeat response.  It was the perfect chemistry and connection between those two wonderful eccentric actors that made the show such a cult classic.  The natural patter, the shared whimsical sense of humor, the chaste flirtation, the throw away double entrees and the freedom to ad-lib beautifully together made Macnee and Rigg one of the most original, and most delightful, screen pairings of all time.  It was so magical that when Diana Rigg left the series after three years, whoever ITV paired with Macnee didn’t have a chance.  It just wasn’t the same.

In one of his stranger screen appearances, Patrick Macnee appeared as music mogul Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in the 1984 comedy classic “This is Spinal Tap.”

Although John Steed was his iconic character, Patrick Macnee had a long and illustrious career on stage and screen.  He is one of the few actors to play both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in various productions.  He appeared in a ton of classic American television including Studio One, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone and Playhouse 90.  He thrilled spy genre fans when he teamed up with Roger Moore as James Bond’s “side-kick” Sir Godfrey Tibbet in A View to a Kill.  He even showed up in such unlikely productions as This is Spinal Tap, The Hardy Boys, The Howling, Battlestar Galactica,  Magnum PI, The Littlest Hobo, The Love Boat and the music video for Oasis’ 1996 hit Don’t Look Back in Anger.  But no matter what part he took on he couldn’t erase the charm and the class.  It was like a trademark that followed him from production to production.

He may have already been a Victorian throw back when he was in his prime, but he was also a beloved icon of British mod culture which has continued to teach us that a little bit of charm can you get you through the most dire death trap.  The only one I guess it can’t get you through is death itself.

We already miss you Patrick Macnee.  I hope the whiskey and lime flows endlessly wherever you may be.

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REMEMBERS

LEONARD NIMOY

1931 – 2015

“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP” – Leonard Nimoy

I’ve never been much of a Star Trek fan.  Surprising, isn’t it?  It’s really one of the biggest misconceptions about me.  People have always assumed I was into Star Trek.  I’m always getting Star Trek stuff given to me, which I quickly regift or shamelessly put up on e-bay.  I suppose the reason people assume I’m a Star Trek fan is because it is so entrenched in pop culture lore, and it goes hand in hand with the geek culture that I am immersed in.  However, despite the fact that I’ve never really been much of a fan, I have seen my share of it and I respect the massive legacy of the cult sci-fi series, as well as the phenomena that is the fandom.  Star Trek IS pop culture.

So, with that in mind, I gladly paid over a hundred dollars to see Leonard Nimoy speak in Toronto during the summer of 2002.  Even at that time paying that sort of money to do a Q & A session with an actor was considered a lot, but you were guaranteed an autograph photo and it was during a period where Nimoy was claiming he was retiring from the autograph show and sci-fi convention circuit (he would come out of retirement a few years later and appear at many more shows).  At the time I figured it’d be the only chance I’d have to ever see Leonard Nimoy and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to witness one of the biggest legends in pop culture history.

Now it was a different time back then and I was a different person.  I was younger, more cynical, more hard hearted.  PCA did not yet exist and I hadn’t even started writing professionally and, although I had been collecting autographs and having celebrity encounters for a few years, I had not yet done a celebrity interview.

I was ushered into a small convention hall (much smaller than the ones they use today at massive comic conventions) with approximately two hundred Star Trek fans.  It was exactly what you’d expect to be like.  There were Vulcans and people in Starfleet uniforms, and one guy in a very detailed Klingon costume and another guy who was cosplaying a pretty mean James Doohan.  There was a buzz in the air as we all waited for the appearance of our hero Leonard Nimoy.

Well, we didn’t wait long and with a thunder of applause Leonard Nimoy took the stage.  Even with my seat near the back of the hall, peering through my dim eyes, did I notice how old Leonard Nimoy looked.  He was dressed casually in a dark button up sweater, much like one that Mr. Rogers would wear.  He thanked us for the warm greeting and then, to all of our surprises, launched into a rambly speech about whales.  That right.  Whales.  At no point did any of the organizers tell us that we were paying over a hundred dollars to hear Leonard Nimoy talk about whales.   I can’t say that it was very interesting, but hey, it was Leonard Nimoy talking in that distinct serious baritone of his which was enough to give any geek goose bumps.  It was what it was I guess and, well, I was guaranteed an autograph picture at the end of the presentation.  So the audience listened politely as Nimoy talked about whales for forty five minutes of the hour that we had with him. Then, once he was finished, he opened the floor for questions.

Two hundred hands went up.

Leonard Nimoy picked someone in the front row who asked a questions about Star Trek.  You could tell Leonard Nimoy was a bit annoyed having expected a question about whales.  I don’t remember what the question was, but he politely answered.  Then he asked for another question.

One hundred and ninety nine hands went up.

Leonard Nimoy said “Yes….you in the back…..in the hat.”

I looked around for the guy in the hat.  Leonard Nimoy said “Yes…you in the black hat.  You.”

I pointed at myself in disbelief.  Leonard Nimoy said “Yes, what is your question?”

I stood up to get some leverage and to allow my voice to carry across the convention hall.  “Hi Mr. Nimoy” I said.  “Thanks so much for coming to Toronto.”

“I’m glad to be here” Leonard Nimoy said to me.

“Yeah” I said, looking at him.

And then that’s when it got a bit surreal.  I was looking at Leonard Nimoy, and he was looking at me.  I was talking to him, and that distinct voice of his was answering me.  Suddenly I sort of blanked out and I thought back to that old Mego Mr. Spock doll I had as a kid, and wondering whatever happened to it.  I then became aware that all the eyes in the room was on me.  A camera from Space: The Imagination Station was pointed at me and, most of all, Leonard Nimoy was staring at me and waiting for my question.

Well I had a question for Leonard Nimoy in mind but, to this day, I don’t remember what it was.  I do know whatever it was, it wasn’t about whales.  But instead of what I was going to ask I decided to ask the question that I knew all of us REALLY wanted to ask.

“Well Mr. Nimoy,” I said meekly, “I was on the computer and I found a video of you on a beach singing about The Hobbit surrounded by go-go dancers in Spock ears.”

“Did you now?”  Leonard Nimoy said with a smirk.

“Yes I did,” I said, “Well….what the fuck Mr. Nimoy? What the fuck?”

The whole convention hall burst out in laughter.  Leonard Nimoy stood on the stage, half annoyed and half amused.

“You found this on the internet?”  he said to me.

“Yes I did sir” I said.

“Somebody get me my lawyer” Nimoy replied to more laughter, and then I knew that my moment was over.

Today I’d never speak to a performer so uncouthly as I did Leonard Nimoy, but I was impressed with the way that he handled my question.  I’d never say I met Leonard Nimoy as much as I’d say we had a brief encounter.  A small moment in time where we looked at one another and exchanged a few words.  It wasn’t my finest hour but I’ll admit that I did ask the one question that burned in me the most.

Behind the desk that I write this is an autographed photo of Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock that I got that day in Toronto.  It is a keepsake from my brief encounter with one of the true giants of the pop culture journey.

Speed be with you Leonard Nimoy as you boldly go where no man has gone before.

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REMEMBERS

LESLEY GORE

1946-2015

Play all my records, keep dancing all night, but leave me alone for a while. – Lesley Gore “It’s My Party”

While all the other kids in my elementary school were listening to Duran Duran, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, I was up in my bedroom listening to Lesley Gore.  The sounds of her sunshine bubblegum pop music came out of my little childhood record player from a scratchy old LP which was purchased by an Aunt, but handed down to my mother, and eventually rediscovered by me in the pile of barely played records in the corner of the rec room.  While getting ready for school each morning, despite what new record I might own, The Golden Hits of Lesley Gore somehow ended up on my turntable.  I knew the words to each song on each side of the LP by heart – It’s My Party, Judy’s Turn to Cry, Just Let Me Cry,  Hey Now…..each moment and note change.  I’d sing them all.  As a result, Lesley Gore became a touchstone in both the musical and pop culture evolution of my life.  Although my musical tastes would radically change, a Lesley Gore song could always tug on the strings of my heart hard.  I can still sing each line to each one of her songs.

That’s why, with tears still in my eyes, my heart is broken as I type these words right now.  Lesley Gore obviously still had a very strong hold on my heart.

At age 17 Lesley Gore became the most famous teenage girl in America when she hit the top of the Billboard charts with “It’s My Party” in 1964, paving the way for future pop princesses.

When Lesley Gore hit the radar in 1963 rock/pop was just starting to come of age.  Elvismania was over and the Beatles weren’t even a blip yet.  The sophomoric era of Fabian and Bobby Vee was coming to an end, making way for the more sophisticated pop sounds by Gene Pitney and The Righteous Brothers under the watchful eye of Phil Spector, the evolution of Motown and the surf rock out of California which was greasing the wheels of the rock explosion to come.  Enter Lesley Gore.  Prim, proper, cute and perhaps a tad bit naive, Lesley Gore became music’s original pop princess, paving the way for future superstars such as Madonna, The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.  But unlike those who came after her, Lesley Gore needed no gimmicks or auto tuning.  Armed with a string of catchy pop hits from the Brill building and the powerful backing of producer Quincy Jones, Lesley Gore became the symbol of the all American every girl, and her music and image would find mass appeal to both male and, especially, female fans alike.

In 1964, at the height of her popularity, Lesley Gore appeared in the concert film “The T.A.M.I Show” in which she was given ten unedited minutes to perform a string of her biggest hits. Despite sharing the stage with The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes, Lesley Gore got the biggest audience reaction.

It might be difficult to understand the star power that Lesley Gore had during the first two years of her career.  Simply put, she was the biggest musical star in America. In the commentary track to the DVD of the 60’s concert film The T.A.M.I Show, director John Landis, who attended the infamous 1964 showcase concert held at the Santa Moncia Civic Auditorium as a seventh grader, states that Lesley Gore got the biggest reaction from the audience despite sharing the stage with legendary acts such as The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Beach Boys.  Although these other acts would go down in history for their social and artistic importance, to the audience of primarily young teenagers it was Lesley Gore whose songs they were hearing on the radio.   In fact, the year before she was nominated for a Grammy for best song for It’s My Party, was given the Billboard prize for song of the year and had just recently won the Cashbox award for female vocalist of the year.  Furthermore, she had eight hit songs on the charts within fifteen months.  Lesley Gore was the most famous teenage girl in America.  As a result, the producers of The T.A.M.I Show dedicated ten solid unedited minutes to Lesley’s performance, allowing her to perform six songs back to back and uncut.  It was Lesley Gore at her finest hour, and she was able to hold her own against the other dynamic acts in the film.

Throughout her early hits Lesley Gore’s music had a disturbing subtext of repression and emotional abuse, which hit home with a generation of young girls who were still pushed down by societies norms. However, she evened out the playing field when she recorded “You Don’t Own Me” in 1964 which would go on to become a feminist anthem.

However, when looking back at many of her songs, there was a disturbing subtext of repression and emotional abuse in many of her biggest hits.  Right out of the gate with It’s My Party Lesley was already in the role of the victim.  It was a disturbing trend which would continue through Maybe I Know, Just Let Me Cry and, most viciously, That’s the Way Boys Are which had illusions of mental and physical abuse and put forth an idea that it was okay, and even expected, for men to cheat on women.  But in the pre-feminist era of America, these were the sad social reality of the teenage girl who still hadn’t yet found her voice.  It was painful, and Lesley Gore harnessed that pain and put it into song and millions of girls worldwide could relate to it.

Thus, when Lesley released You Don’t Own Me in 1964, that song was such a massive juxtaposition for not only her body of work, but the music being sung by women in the pop scene in general.  It was a song of liberation sung by a nice girl which had never been done before in pop music.  The song was more up to the speed of a tougher girl band like The Shangris-Las, but Lesley Gore’s girlish rendition of such a powerful song brought the idea of self-respect and liberation to the normal American girls who were not readily exposed to the budding women’s liberation movement which was growing in large city centers and university campuses.  It was an extremely early musical moment in feminism from an unlikely source proving that Lesley Gore had more strength and clout than the public might have realized.  In retrospect, You Don’t Own Me was Lesley Gore’s most important recording.

In 1967 Lesley Gore appeared opposite of Julie Newmar as Catwoman’s sidekick Pussycat in a classic episode of “Batman” in which she premiered her minor hit “California Nights.”

But of course, there was an interesting real life drama going on in Lesley’s life that nobody knew at the time and added another powerful subtext to her songs.  During a time when homosexuality was still deemed to be deviant in society, it was unthinkable that America’s premier pop princess might be gay.  Lesley Gore would publicly say that she didn’t realize that she was gay until she attended Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, but I have a conflicting story to this.  During the 1960’s Lesley Gore was often escorted to premiers and parties by actor Aron Kincaid, who I got to know on a personal level near the end of his life.  Aron and Leslie appeared together in a few films during the mid 60’s including Girls on the Beach and Ski Party where Lesley can be seen paying special attention to him while singing Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows.  During one of our visits I asked Aron if he knew that Lesley was gay during this time and he replied “Yes I did.  She had told me, so I helped guard her secret as her date for a while.”  It was also Aron who said to me “Lesley Gore was the smartest girl I ever knew.”  This painted a fuller picture of a young woman who obviously was keeping a very guarded secret during a time where it was one thing to be repressed as a young woman, but another to be repressed as a lesbian.  Perhaps the angst that Lesley brought to her songs weren’t just about boys, but about her own repressed sexual identity as well.

Over the years I tried many times to contact Lesley Gore for a PCA interview but our connections never seemed to come together.  She always seemed two steps ahead of me.  It hurts my heart that we always seemed to be only a few degrees of separation from each other but never spoke.  So tonight I dug out that old copy of The Golden Hits of Lesley Gore that my Aunt bought decades ago and which still is in my record collection to this day and lay it once again on my record turn table.  It’s still has that scratchy sound and the occasional skip, but I still know all the lyrics.  I still can sing all the songs.

Tonight it’s not just Judy’s turn to cry.  Tonight the whole world weeps  for Lesley Gore.

Hide every lovely flower from my sight,
Don’t let that dreamy moon come out, oh, tonight.
And please don’t let me see two lovers kiss,
Don’t let me be reminded what I miss.
He said good-bye,
Just let me cry.

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Although his face may not be recognizable to most pop culture fans, Felix Silla has had one of the biggest careers of anyone ever to participate in a PCA interview.

Standing 3’11”, stunt man and actor Felix Silla may be the smallest person ever to give an interview to PCA. However, there is little doubt that he has had one of the biggest careers. Although his face may not be recognizable to the public, he has worked beside some of the biggest stars in television and film history, and has had a behind the scenes presence in some of televisions biggest shows and films biggest blockbusters. His television appearances include Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, The Monkees, Betwitched, HR Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Bewitched, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Star Trek, Night Gallery, The Dukes of Hazzard and Married with Children. Meanwhile, he has played various role as well as did stunt work in Planet of the Apes, The Towering Inferno, Poltergeist, The Black Bird, The Manitou, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Howard the Duck, Return of the Jedi, The Golden Child, Under the Rainbow, The Sting II, Spaceballs and Batman Returns. Few film professionals can claim a resume with as many memorable productions as Felix Silla.

Although he only appeared in seventeen episodes of “The Addams Family,” Felix Silla’s character Cousin Itt became one of the most beloved and iconic creatures from the series.

But it was behind an elaborate costume made of hair that Felix made his biggest mark in pop culture history when he played the role of the mysterious and beloved Cousin Itt on The Addams Family. Joining the series twenty episodes into its first season, Felix made only seventeen appearances as the strange little creature without a face, but he immediately become one of the show’s most popular characters. Still a beloved iconic television character, Cousin Itt gave Felix Silla solid immortality in the history of television.

A few years later Felix Silla got the role of another popular character when he took on the role of Twiki the Robot on Buck Rogers. Although the character was voiced by legendary voice actor Mel Blanc, Silla worked opposite Gil Gerard and Erin Gray over two seasons of the popular sci-fi drama. A favorite with young viewers, Twiki was merchandised and became a popular character for kids hungry for Star Wars type fare, and gave Felix another landmark role to his already monumental career.

Appearing in 80′s film franchise such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Felix Silla also took on the popular role of Twiki the Robot on “Buck Rogers.”

Originally from Rome, Italy, Felix Silla came to North America at age 16 and got a job working for Barnum and Bailey Circus. But after a few years under the big top, he realized that the circus wasn’t the place for him. Settling down in Los Angeles, Silla eventually found a new career doing stunts and stand in work for children in television and movies. With his short stature and circus training, Felix Silla became a commodity which opened the doors to some of the biggest productions in movie history which led him to appearing on the other side of the camera as well as behind it.

A great man and a fantastic storyteller, it’d be impossible to fit all of his Hollywood stories into a single interview, but for an hour and a half Felix gave it a go.  The result is an interesting journey through film history from a man with a truly unique perspective.

 READ FULL INTERVIEW

Pop culture’s original bad boy, “Leave it to Beaver’s: Eddie Haskell, portrayed by Ken Osmond.

With a perfidious compliment and over the top delivery, Eddie Haskell was pop culture’s original bad boy.  Sneaky and shallow, the smirky best friend of Wally Cleaver on the classic TV sit-com Leave it to Beaver not only became a pop culture favorite, but slowly made his way into the cultural lexicon as the archetype of society’s shifty and insincere wise-guys.  Eddie Haskell was the kind of kid that you would hate if you met him, but you couldn’t help but love watching him get his pals in trouble.  For over fifty years Eddie Haskell has remained to be one of the most popular supporting characters in television history.

When Eddie Haskell first appeared on television screens in 1957 nobody would predict how much of a cultural icon he would become.  Behind that smirk was fourteen year old actor Ken Osmond who had been appearing in films, television and commercials since the age of four.  However, the break out role of Eddie Haskell would become his most famous role, making him a household name for decades to come.

In the role of one of television’s most endearing characters, Ken Osmond is a favorite at autograph shows world wide and always reading to brush Eddie Haskell off for one more screen appearance.

Ken Osmond jeered and connived his way through six seasons of Leave it to Beaver where he became just as popular, and questionably more popular, then the shows stars Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow.  Highly quotable, his bad boy persona was ground breaking compared to the sugary sweet characters that were often played by teenagers on television during the golden era of television.  However, his popularity would take its toll on his career and when Leave it to Beaver wrapped up in 1963 Ken Osmond found that he was faced with typecasting so crippling that it was preventing him from getting the roles he wanted.  By the end of the 1960’s Ken Osmond realized that he could no longer make a decent living as an actor.  Shifting gears completely, Osmond joined the Los Angeles police force where he spend the next thirty years patrolling the streets of LA.

However, between his law enforcement career, Ken Osmond was always willing to brush the character of Eddie Haskell off for token appearances where he reprised the role on an episode of Happy Days and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, a McDonald’s advertising campaign, the ill-fated and much forgotten big screen remake of Leave it to Beaver and 101 episodes of the syndicated series Still the Beaver from 1983 to 1989.

Currently retired from the LAPD, Ken Osmond is still a favorite at autograph shows across the world and has recently wrote an autobiography alongside writer Christopher J. Lynch titled Eddie: The Life and Times of America’s Preeminent Bad Boy.  I met Ken Osmond at the Hamilton Comic Convention where he took a few moments to talk to me about his career and his smarmy alter ego.

READ FULL INTERVIEW

Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s enough to give anybody a headache. Poor Gilligan never had a chance.

Ginger or Mary Ann?  It’s the kind of pop culture problem that could give Sigmund Freud a headache.

When Gilligan’s Island premiered on television fifty years ago, the critics quickly dismissed it, stating that it was one of the worst television shows ever made.  Little did they realize that it would become not only a beloved television staple, but would entertain generations of kids for decades to come.  Part of the success of the show was creator Sherwood Schwartz’s creation of some of televisions most beloved characters – Gilligan, the Skipper and the other stranded castaways.  But they were more than just an eccentric gathering of odd ball characters.  They were broad stereotypes taken from a cross section of society – the fool, the leader, the intellect, the elite, the vamp and the all American girl.  These social archetypes have managed to transcend the years, giving Gilligan’s Island a timeless appeal.  The characters are as relevant today as they were five decades ago.

In the role of Mary Ann Summers on “Gilligan’s Island,” Dawn Wells became a genuine pop culture sex symbol and a cultural archtype for the all American “good” girl.

As genuine pop culture sex symbols, Ginger and Mary Ann, played by Tina Louise and Dawn Wells, became the first crushes for kids watching throughout North America.  The juxtaposition of the two characters were so broad that they became opposite ends of the sexual ying and yang – the good girl/bad girl, the virgin/whore, the girl you bring home to Mom/the girl you don’t.  Perhaps Schwartz didn’t plan it that way, but there was a lot more going on on that Island then maybe met the eye.

But what messages did Ginger and Mary Ann give to girls that grew up on the show?  Well, as Dawn Wells reveals in her new book, What Would Mary Ann Do: A Guide to Life, perhaps today’s society needs a lot more “Mary Ann’s” and a few less “Ginger’s.”

Raised by a single mother is Reno, Nevada, Dawn Wells, a former Ms. America contestant, made her way to Hollywood in the late 1950’s where she appeared on TV programs such as Bonanza, Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip before taking the role of Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island in 1964.  Pretty, bright eyed and enthusiastic, the role made her a cultural icon.

In her new book “What Would Mary Ann Do?: A Guide to Life,” actress Dawn Wells is talking to girls about why they should be a “Mary Ann” instead of a “Ginger.”

Drawing from a combination of personal life events and plain common sense, Dawn Wells uses her famous role as a symbol in her new book to talk to modern girls about values and morals .  As she explains, it’s not about being a “goody two shoes” as much as making good decisions.  While “Gingers” may seem to have more fun, but “Mary Anns” are the ones who get married.

Dawn Wells has been touring North America with her new book and talking to girls from coast to coast, proving that there is still a lot that can be learned from Ginger and Mary Ann.  While on tour she took a moment to talk to me about how her own experiences helped shape this book and how Mary Ann has become a good pop culture role model for girls and women of all ages and generations.

READ FULL INTERVIEW

 

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